The John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Arts of Hawaiʻi Gallery re-opened April 7 after a yearlong run of the exhibition Hawaiʻi in Design. The newly installed works comprise what is my first permanent collection exhibition in the spacious main areas of the Arts of Hawaiʻi Gallery since I joined the museum in 2015. The permanent galleries are now organized into three sections: Notions of Nationhood, Arts of Hawaiʻi, and Social and Political Intersections in Art. Rather than taking a chronological approach to art history, the installation presents many of the classic and often-displayed artworks from the collection, but reframes them and makes connections between works across different centuries and genres.
Conceptually, I wanted to introduce new narratives about Hawai‘i’s social history through the lens of art, and set out to be as inclusive, dynamic, and relevant as possible when thinking about the Arts of Hawai‘i. The gallery is devoted to the dynamic visual culture connected to the Hawaiian Islands. Nā ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiian people); kamaʻāina (people who are from these islands); and short- and long-term residents who have contributed to our vibrant art scene are among those whose artworks are featured. Themes of war, humor, social criticism, spirituality, portraiture, and place emerge across artistic approaches to underscore wide-ranging interpretations of the human experience linked to Hawaiʻi nei.
Spatially, I wanted to create a place where visitors could experience artworks from multiple perspectives and consider them in relationship to art visible across the gallery. The connections are not limited to visual relationships between works hanging side-by-side. The idea was to install works on the walls, but present them in such a way that moves away from the feeling of pictures marching around the perimeter. Consider Alchemy #1, a 1997 ceramic form by Toshiko Takaezu with strokes of metallic color that are in dialogue with the gestural marks of the 1997 Portrait of Iz by Yan Pei Ming and the 1917 Mount Kilauea, the House of Everlasting Fire by Ambrose Patterson from one perspective, and in dialogue with the sculptural presence of a pre-19th century poi pounder and Brett Graham’s 2014 snitch from another angle. Spanning time, media, and genre, the works relate to each other in interesting ways and create dimension in the gallery.
Unexpected pairings, such as Madge Tennent’s World War II (WWII) era painting Untitled (Woman with Gas Mask and Bunny Hoods), and the recently acquired 2015 painting by Reem Bassous titled Memory for Forgetfulness bring to the forefront commonalities and juxtapositions between the artists and their work. Both are female artists, are immigrants to Hawaiʻi from other countries, and both experienced wartime conditions, yet under very different circumstances; Tennent, as a resident of Hawaiʻi during WWII and Bassous as a child in war-torn Beirut, Lebanon.
Although the Hawaiian female figure was, by the time Tennent emigrated from England to Hawai‘i in 1923, an iconic subject in art, Tennent departed from artistic conventions informed by European standards of beauty to focus on what she interpreted as “the aesthetic of the Hawaiian people.” Her work developed into a career‑long study of form and movement expressed through monumental yet lyrical depictions of female figures. As John Charlot states when describing Tennent’s work, “Hawaiian beauty, as Madge Tennent teaches us, is this combination of imposing mass with grace, of power with finesse, of form with flow.” Tennent’s own writings demonstrate a fascination with the Hawaiian matriarch, a subject she characterized as the aesthetic ideal.
In this painting, Tennent paints a Hawaiian woman holding a gas mask in her left hand, surrounded by children wearing government issued bunny hood gas masks sewn specifically for children to make the mask “fun” to use during WWII. Resourceful and prolific, Tennent combined two canvases into a single surface upon which to paint this larger than life depiction of war in Hawaiʻi.
Hawaiʻi‑based artist, Reem Bassous, frequently draws upon the political undercurrents of Hawaiʻi to interrogate her own experience with political instability growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Poetry, considered by many to function as the archive of Arabic culture, is evoked in the title of this painting, named after a book of prose by Mahmoud Darwish, a famous Palestinian poet who lived in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Wishing for normalcy during the 1982 invasion, he wrote longingly for a cup of coffee: “I want the aroma of coffee. I need five minutes. I want a five‑minute truce for the sake of coffee.” Red and green flower motifs, iconic of Lebanese coffee cups, punctuate an interior setting strewn with books. The city and sky encroach upon the room, further disrupting domestic life, while a ghostly figure haunts the space.
Alongside Bassousʻs painting, Tennent’s circa 1942-1945 painting looks surprisingly contemporary. This is but one of the many juxtapositions in the Arts of Hawaiʻi Gallery that resonate with me on a conceptual and visual level. I find myself continually drawn back to the gallery and love to spend time among the artworks on view. With the exception of Notions of Nationhood, which will come down in the spring of 2018, the permanent collection installation will remain on view indefinitely. Come see it for yourself!